BRUSSELS - Nato warned Tuesday against any escalation in hostilities between Syria and Turkey after border artillery exchanges as alliance defence ministers reviewed a difficult withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Nato head Anders Fogh Rasmussen said the pullout of Nato Afghan combat forces by end-2014 would top the agenda at a two-day ministers’ meeting which will review defence commitments and how to meet them in times of austerity.
However, asked about the Syrian conflict and the spillover shelling of Turkish border areas, he condemned the attacks by forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad and warned too against escalation.
“I would like to commend the Turkish government for the restraint it has shown in its response to the completely unacceptable Syrian attacks,” he said. “Obviously Turkey has a right to defend herself within international law,” he added, noting that the alliance has “all necessary plans in place to protect and to defend Turkey if necessary.
“We hope it won’t be necessary, we hope that both countries will show restraint and avoid an escalation of the crisis,” he said. Turkey as a Nato member has the right to invoke military help in response to an attack on its territory under Article V but it has so far invoked only Article IV, which involves consultations.
On Afghanistan, Rasmussen said Nato policy remained on-track and unchanged, despite setbacks, aiming to put in place a new mission of training and assistance for government forces from 2015.
“The goal, the strategy and the timeline remain unchanged,” he said, adding that ministers should endorse the new mission’s broad framework on Wednesday.
The meeting must also address the tricky problem of military spending at a time when governments are under pressure on all sides to cut budgets, he said.
“This period of economic austerity poses a challenge to defence budgets but it also opens an opportunity for strength and cooperation and new ways to provide security,” he said.
Nato adopted a ‘Smart Defence’ policy at a May summit in Chicago, aiming to get a ‘bigger bang for its buck’ through cooperation and burden sharing to offset smaller budgets.
Asked about the proposed merger of European aerospace giant EADS and British arms maker BAE Systems in this regard, the secretary general declined direct comment, saying it was purely a commercial matter for the companies concerned.
At the same time, he noted, “in general I am in favour of restructuring the European defence industry, the companies, to make them more effective and competitive.”
EADS said Tuesday that it and British arms maker BAE would decide during the day whether to continue talks on a merger that would create the world’s biggest civil and defence aerospace company, more than a match for US giant Boeing.
The EADS-BAE deal is not on the official agenda of the Nato meeting but officials said Monday they expected the parties concerned — France, Germany and Britain as shareholders of the two companies — would discuss the issue.
British Defence Minister Philip Hammond said Tuesday he hoped to meet his French, German and US counterparts on the proposed tie-up.
BAE has huge interests in the US defence market and Washington has voiced misgivings the new entity might carry too much European government influence.
Among other commitments to be discussed by ministers is the Nato-led peacekeeping force in Kosovo, a commitment now in its 13th year.